The Mullica River Wildfire

On the morning of Father’s Day 2022, multiple observers in fire towers and kayakers spotted a large wildfire near the Mullica River Campground along the banks of the river. Ignited by an illegal campfire, high winds and unusually low humidity caused it to spread rapidly. By the time New Jersey Forest Fire Service brought it under control, it burned about 13,500 acres, becoming the 17th largest recorded fire in New Jersey history.

I kayaked in the area affected by the fire a week before it started. On the afternoon of the fire, I drove down Route 206 and turned on Atsion Road after a family Father’s Day celebration in Egg Harbor Township. I saw a helicopter taking water out of the lake in the effort to contain the blaze. 

The plumes of smoke appeared heaviest the following day. Barbara Solem and I planned to hike around Atsion Lake that morning but the recreation area was closed due to the fire. Instead, we walked the trails between the lake and Goshen Pond. I took some photos of the smoke rising beyond the lake and a helicopter surveying the blaze over Route 206, which was closed, near the Atsion Ranger Station at Quaker Bridge Road.

A plume of smoke from the Mullica River Wildfire reflecting on the water of Atsion Lake in Shamong, NJ
Smoke on the Water (Photo by Beach and Barrens)

I drove around Tuesday morning. The towering plumes were gone but a stretch of Route 206 looked smokey and remained closed. The fire died down by the end of the week. On Friday, I drove my Jeep down Quaker Bridge Road and on Sunday I attended a meeting at Batsto Village, which had been threatened by the fire. I spotted some blackened and still smoking areas. 

Mullica River Wildfire Facebook Album

Fire Watching

Wildfire is endemic in the pine barrens and a natural part of the ecology. Forest fires are so much a part of life in the Pine Barrens that John McPhee devotes an entire chapter of his book to it.

Whatever else they do, men in the Pine Barrens are fire fighters through their lives.

The Pine Barrens by John McPhee
A fire-blackened tree trunk surrounded by spring growth near the Mullica River in the Jersey Pine Barrens
Fire-blackened (Photo by Beach and Barrens)

The New Jersey Forest Fire Service (NJFFS) posts updates about the risk of fire for the state. Forest fire season occurs in spring when dry and windy conditions increase the risk of fire danger significantly. Prescribed burns and fire lookout towers help protect residents and their homes from this hazard. Today, I came upon the aftermath of another controlled burn along Sandy Causeway, a dirt road running through Wharton State Forest. Controlled burns have also been performed near the Shamong farm where I board my horse, close enough to easily smell them and make the air and sky hazy. I took this little iPhone video clip showing the smoldering remnants of a prescribed burn performed near my house in March 2021.

Fire Lookout Towers

The NJFFS operates 21 fire lookout towers throughout the state. When fire risk is elevated, Fire Observers staff the towers high above the trees, ever vigilant for wisps of smoke heralding the threat of fire. I’ve had the opportunity to climb to the top of two of the Pine Barrens fire towers. The first was the Apple Pie Hill fire tower in Tabernacle.

Apple Pie Hill Fire Tower in the Tabernacle, NJ Pine Barrens
Apple Pie Hill Fire Tower (Photo by Beach and Barrens)

The second was the Bass River fire tower in Tuckerton where I got to meet Bill, a seasoned Fire Observer, who explained his job and the Osborne Fire Finder (also called an alidade) that he used to help him pinpoint the location of any fires he spotted.

Alidade in the Bass River Fire Tower in the New Jersey Pine Barrens
Alidade (Photo by Beach and Barrens)

In fact, according to this Pine Barrens Tribune article, the NJFFS credited this very tower with timely detection of the May 18, 2021 Ballanger fire in Bass River state forest, enabling it to be contained safely. Interestingly, the article states that a clear-cut of trees around the tower took place in January 2020, improving the view from the tower’s cabin, an action performed in the face of years of opposition. 

View of the New Jersey Pine Barrens from the Bass River Fire Tower
Bass River Fire Tower View (Photo by Beach and Barrens)

The Black Saturday Fire

The worst fire in New Jersey history started as multiple fires on April 20, 1963. Ignited by human carelessness, it blazed across Atlantic, Burlington, and Ocean counties, burning from 183,000 to 190,000 acres. Seven people lost their lives. Estimated property damage reached $8.5 million. McPhee mentions it in his book, but you can also read about it in these two articles.

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